I grew up with wallpaper and it was scary. Some parts of it were fuzzy to the touch or disagreeably lumpy; yet other parts threatened to peel away from the wall altogether, most likely to reveal something even more horrible underneath. The patterns seemed designed to suck you in and trap you inside them forever; you could glimpse evil faces in there, and unholy creatures, and malevolent flora, especially when you were ill or had a fever. It’s not hard to empathise with the sickly heroine of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story The Yellow Wallpaper.
Since I left home 40 years ago, every wall of every room I have ever had has always been painted white.
But I never stopped eyeing wallpaper with suspicion, and invariably jotted down a note when I spotted a particularly unpleasant example of it in a film. Before I knew it, of course, I had a list. Recently I read a Halloween blog by David Cairns in which he remarked on the wallpaper in The Haunting (see below) and challenged someone to compile a Top Ten of Great Wallpaper Movies. So here is that Top Ten. The rules were simple: in order to be included, the film had to feature at least one example of extraordinary wallpaper. Extra points awarded for the wallpaper actually being a plot point, or for sheer craziness.
I’m also quite interested in the difference between the wallpaper decorating sets in films made in the 1960s and 1970s, and the wallpaper in films made recently but set in the 1960s or 1970s. Sometimes I suspect production designers think we all had wallpaper all over the place back then, which (see my previous remark about white walls) simply isn’t true.
But yes, wallpaper can play many different roles in a film, and is not just a signifier of period. It can represent aspiration and upward-mobility, working-class taste, a character’s psyche, secrets, the past, or the thinnest of veneers, barely concealing that which needs to be concealed. It can also be insanely decorative, or decoratively insane. I’m prepared to bet there’s no shortage of comedies featuring would-be decorators falling off ladders, getting their feet stuck in buckets of paste or ending up with their heads encased in gluey strips of paper, but I still don’t think wallpaper is the stuff of comedy. It’s sinister.
BARTON FINK (1991)
Peeling, oozing wallpaper. Is this Barton’s psyche, or his next-door neighbour’s? Either way, “I’ll show you the life of the mind.”
CAT O’NINE TAILS (aka IL GATTO O NOVE CODE) (1971)
Someone should write a thesis about wallpaper in giallo. In the meantime, Dario Argento’s psychothriller makes it on to this list by virtue of this extraordinary design, which (fittingly, since the woman in the picture will presently fall victim to the killer) resembles a recurring splattered brain motif. Or possibly a jellyfish.
Elsewhere in the movie, one of the people investigating the murders is retired journalist Karl Malden, who is blind – which is just as well, as the wallpaper in the flat he shares with his young niece is hideous.
Argento’s Suspiria was a near-miss for this list – it’s a riot of flock wallpaper, but fell at the final selection because a) many of its most striking designs were murals rather than wallpaper per se, and b) the quality of my 1998 Suspiria DVD is just dreadful. Donations to replace it with a Blu-Ray gratefully received.
LE CERCLE ROUGE (aka RED CIRCLE) (1970)
In Jean-Pierre Melville’s very fine existential cops and robbers drama, Yves Montand plays an alcoholic ex-cop who gets one of cinema’s most memorable attacks of delirium tremens, no doubt made even more intense and sweaty for the poor man by this nightmarish stripey wallpaper in his bedroom.
Elsewhere in the film there are less striking but still interesting examples of wallpaper, as well as Alain Delon with a dodgy moustache and André Bourvil with some cats.
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)
Production designer John Barry (no relation to the composer) went to town on the futuristic wallpaper for Alex’s parents’ flat. Six years later he would win an Oscar for Star Wars, but Stanley Kubrick’s film of Anthony Burgess’s novel (which – let me put it on record here – I actually don’t like much, though Barry’s designs are spectacular) was surely his finest hour.
FOX AND HIS FRIENDS (aka FAUSTRECHT DER FREIHEIT) (1975)
Like other members of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s repertory company, Kurt Raab played multiple roles; he wasn’t just an actor (perhaps best known as the murderer from Ulli Lommel’s Tenderness of the Wolves) but was also responsible for some of the most striking production design in Fassbinder’s films, including this depressing fable about a working-class fairground barker (played by Fassbinder himself) who wins the lottery and suddenly finds himself surrounded by “friends”. And a lot of very striking upwardly-mobile wallpaper.
Fassbinder and his cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus, drew visual inspiration from the films of such Hollywood melodrama maestros as Douglas Sirk. One day, when I have time on my hands, I shall comb Sirk’s work for wallpaper cues.
THE HAUNTING (1963)
My thanks to David Cairns for reminding me of this ghastly three-dimensional wallpaper in the ultimate haunted house movie, adapted from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. (Can you see a face in it? I can.)
In fact, there’s wallpaper plastered all over the house, but the place is so busy with drapes and furniture and mirrors and knick-knacks you don’t get many other good views of it. You don’t need to; you know it’s there. The interiors of Hill House remind me a bit of casinos – there don’t seem to be any windows, and time passes, if it passes at all, in a very disturbing way.
OLD BOY (aka OLDEUBOI) (2003)
Dae-su Oh is held prisoner for 15 years in a room with depressing wallpaper, so no wonder he goes a bit mad. Nor is it the only horrible wallpaper in Chan-wook Park’s baroque, ultra-violent revenge melodrama.
After a while, whenever somebody goes into a room decorated with horrible wallpaper, you automatically start to cringe, because you sense something extremely unpleasant is about to happen. And it usually does.
PEEPING TOM (1960)
Wallpaper at its most oppressive. Some very nasty stuff underneath it, obviously.
THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (aka SÅSOM I EN SPEGEL) (1961)
With wallpaper like this, is it any wonder Harriet Andersson’s character has had a nervous breakdown in Ingmar Bergman’s contribution to the wallpaper subgenre? And will it give her another nervous breakdown? What do you think?
UMBERTO D (1952)
A retired civil servant comes out of hospital to find workmen scraping the wallpaper off the walls of his room; his vile landlady has repossessed it, and his small dog is nowhere to be found. If you have tears, prepare to shed them pretty much all the way through Vittorio De Sica’s slice of unflinchingly sentimental neo-Realism.
(His wallpaper is truly disturbing, by the way. If the old man knew what was good for him, he would be pleased to see it stripped off. But obviously that’s not the point of the film.)
Here’s a Wallpaper Movie slideshow. Most of these stills are from the films already mentioned, but there are also examples from The King’s Speech and Vera Drake (both recent films where production designers have gone to town on the period wallpaper thing) and a rather blurry Suspiria. From time to time, I shall be adding other stills drawn from worthy wallpaper movies omitted from the Top Ten; many thanks to those who have offered suggestions.
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